Is the United States an Empire?
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"If it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. If it quacks like an empire, it probably is an empire," remarked Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, at a July 17 debate at AEI. Ferguson squared off against Robert Kagan, author of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, in a debate addressing the nature of American power.

Arguing that the United States is an empire and should be labeled as such, Ferguson cited America's economic, military, and cultural strength as proof of its classification as an empire. He observed that in addition to "nearly a third of world output" being "accounted for by the United States," America also has the power to "fight and win any war against any rival today." In addition, and perhaps more importantly, "the United States also has one very important attribute of empire not contained in the dictionary definition. It has the ability to export its cultural values, to make its cultural values not only attractive to other peoples, but to make those peoples adopt them voluntarily."

Superpower vs. Empire

Rejecting Ferguson's broader definition of empire, Kagan maintained that there is a great difference between a powerful nation such as the United States and a nation that "seeks to exercise its dominion over others, which is what the true definition of empire is."

Indeed, America's greatest strength, Kagan asserted, has always been its unwillingness to "exercise imperial control," a reluctance that has allowed it to be successful in dealing with other nations. Its power has stemmed from "voluntary association" rather than from brute force or domination. Even when directly intervening in the affairs of other nations, the United States "did not turn countries that it got involved with, intervened with, associated with, into deserts," as other nations might have, but rather "it enriched them." Acknowledging the importance of American power, Kagan maintained that, "We must all continue to work to make our fellow Americans understand the important role the United States has to play. And we also have the task of convincing the rest of the world that America's actions are not purely selfish but are in the interests of many others who share its views."

Ferguson, however, called Kagan's argument only a matter of which label is chosen. "Americans," Ferguson said, "find the 'E' word almost entirely impossible to utter, so they use euphemisms: great power, hegemon, unipolarity, leader." This reluctance on the part of Americans to recognize the fact of their own power, Ferguson argued, is a critical problem facing the country, particularly when it seeks to exercise its power. Whatever government officials and citizens wish to call this power, being "an empire in denial" has in his view led, and will continue to lead, to three central problems in American policy: an unwillingness to conduct military operations under the premise that these operations will require a significant amount of time; an unwillingness to devote sufficient funds to operations (attempting to "run an empire on a shoestring"); and, finally, an unwillingness to seek aid from other nations.

"Why," Ferguson asked, "if the United States is so wealthy, so militarily powerful, and has such an attractive culture, has it been such an unsuccessful empire? . . . The answer is because it is an empire in denial, because it does not recognize the nature of its responsibilities, because it attempts to nation-build in a time frame of two years, the electoral cycle. It attempts to nation-build on the Wal-Mart principle of 'low prices always.' It attempts to nation-build without adequate cooperation and support from its allies."

Defining Imperial Power

Kagan questioned the existence of the vast imperial power described by Ferguson when aid from allies in the war with Iraq was largely not forthcoming. "What kind of an empire is it exactly," Kagan asked, "that when it undertakes what its leadership and much of the country believes to be an absolutely vital war, in this case in Iraq, it cannot bring around any of its putative subjects in Europe? It cannot bring around Turkey, a dependent country on this great empire if ever there was one. . . . It cannot bring around Saudi Arabia entirely
to support this vital action. . . . I would think that an empire would do a good bit better in ordering its imperial subjects around."

Ferguson pointed to the history of other empires to argue that imperial strength does not mean universal or unilateral clout or power based on coercion. "British power in North America itself had rested on consent until that consent broke down disastrously, unavoidably, in the 1770s. Consent is the key to empire," Ferguson said. "Empires exist, and have always existed, on the basis of consent."

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